Tianjin by numbers

Mistrust between the United States and China dominated last week’s climate talks. After another disappointing round of negotiations, Sam Geall considers the figures behind the impasse.

Disappointment lingered in the air of Tianjin’s Meijiang centre on Saturday morning, as pervasive as the polluted haze in the north-eastern Chinese city that last week played host to UN climate-change talks, the final session before November’s COP16 meeting in Cancún, Mexico. The narrative is becoming familiar, certainly to readers of chinadialogue. Despite flashes of promise (some progress on finance, technology transfer – and hopeful words from the UNFCCC‘s executive secretary), procedural paralysis dogged much of the process and deepened distrust.

The United States and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse-gas polluters, traded blows. OK, not really: disputes were conducted in the arcane, theological discourse of the UN framework convention. QERCs and QELROs; MRVs and ICAs. For the uninitiated: numbers, and how to count them. And it’s these numbers that still hold up progress.

China opposed certain forms of monitoring of its domestic greenhouse-gas targets, but accused the United States of using negotiations about this issue to stall progress on targets themselves. A member of the Chinese delegation, who on Thursday spoke to chinadialogue on condition of anonymity, said of the talks: “The US constantly refused to start the discussion on quantified emission reduction commitments [QERCs], instead sticking to technical issues like MRV [measurement, reporting and verification], thinking that these more practical and detailed issues must come first.” He continued: “Talking about MRV but not discussing targets is like talking about the design of a ruler before you know what you are going to measure.”

The next day it was the turn of Todd Stern, the US special envoy on climate change, to accuse China of bad faith, telling an audience at the University of Michigan Law School that Chinese negotiators had acted “almost as though the [Copenhagen] accord never happened”. Stern’s deputy, Jonathan Pershing, suggested that China had moved away from previous agreements on transparency, telling the South China Morning Post: “What we are seeing now in this negotiation is that countries are very wary and very unwilling, moving away from the reporting, not from actions.”

So, what lies behind these exchanges? Transparency is a smaller part of the puzzle than Pershing’s comments might suggest. Rather, the dispute seems to hinge on how the United States and China formalise and internationalise their domestic pledges on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, on the part these commitments would play in a future, legally binding treaty. In other words, it’s not about the counting so much as the numbers.

Some more numbers: as chinadialogue readers will no doubt recall, China last year set a domestically binding target to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy – that is, the carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP – by 40% to 45% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. According to a new analysis by David Cohen-Tanugi at the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, this represents a significant deviation from previous trends: prior domestic commitments had China on track for a 37% reduction. The study suggests that, assuming ambitious policies remain in place during the next two five-year plans, China should exceed its target, achieving a 48% reduction in carbon intensity.

Rolling blackouts have recently darkened some Chinese provinces in the rush to meet such targets. But through the smog, more than one bright example of low-carbon development and innovation can be found in Tianjin itself. In the Binhai New Development Zone on the Bohai Gulf, chinadialogue saw construction work on the GreenGen project, a state-of-the-art, full-scale (250-megawatt) research, development and demonstration integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plant, which will be operational next year and is designed to have carbon capture and storage (CCS) fitted in its next phase.

By contrast, the United States pledged a 17% reduction in overall emissions by 2020 compared to 2005 levels (equivalent to a 4% reduction on 1990 levels) but the prospects for the climate-change legislation needed to achieve it are in disarray, despite continued support from the president. Federal agencies and states could use existing pollution regulations, and while a recent study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) suggested it was “technically feasible” to approach the target, even in the most aggressive scenario, the 17% reduction cannot be met. It is understandable then, that other countries might lack confidence that the US is serious about its targets.

Considering this, the belligerent tone of the United States during Tianjin seems odd. It is also unsurprising that such tactics haven’t moved China. Rather, they are more likely to provoke indignation. (Dale Wen, an activist scholar who helped organise an open letter to Stern signed by Chinese intellectuals and NGOs, said: “Instead of transparency, let’s talk about responsibility. Where is Jonathan Pershing when it comes to that conversation?”) A Chinese friend suggested an apt analogy: he had found a tiny car park used by local Tianjin residents as a tennis court. The space was so small, he said, that the tennis players had to serve and volley very gently, for fear of hitting the ball into the street. The cramped space of the car park, he said, represents the limited time of the negotiations – the risk is not just the much-discussed “gap between commitment periods”, but the UN process sliding into total irrelevance. The American playing style at the negotiations, he said, had lost the ball.

So, can the United States and China move past this impasse? Jennifer Morgan, director of the Climate and Energy Program at WRI, suggested that the US first needs to create some certainty about its numbers. “President Obama needs to make clear the US is going to meet its 17% target, place that target into the UN framework convention and [show] that the US still supports a legally binding instrument moving forward,” Morgan told chinadialogue. “He needs to lay out how the US plans to do that: he’s done it a bit in a recent Rolling Stone article, but my sense is that countries around the world need to hear the president directly, in order to hopefully build some trust that – despite the lack of legislation passing this year in the US – the president is still committed.”

Can this build the trust needed? It might assuage fears that the United States is going to step back out of the process, as it has in the past, but it’s unlikely to be enough. Perhaps paradoxically, the deadlock serves to remind us of the other countries in the process. “I think that the European Union, along with a couple of key countries, will need to step up their game,” said Morgan. “Working with Europe, Mexico, the host of this year’s meeting, South Africa and Brazil – the hosts of two very important upcoming meetings – need to be ready to rise above their own national positions and step into a place of international leadership if they want the multilateral system to move forward. Part of that needs to be engaging the US and China in finding solutions.”

On Thursday, European environment ministers will discuss their numbers: in particular, whether unilaterally to increase the EU target from a 20% reduction to a 30% reduction in emissions by 2020 below 1990 levels. As a symbol of low-carbon leadership, that could be a start.


Sam Geall is deputy editor of chinadialogue.

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